By Ben Golliver
The Nets fired coach Avery Johnson on Thursday after a 14-14 start with a payroll of more than $80 million in the franchise's much-anticipated first season in Brooklyn.
Johnson, hired in June 2010, was in the final year of a three-year, $12 million contract. The firing was first reported by Yahoo! Sports, which also reported that Nets assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo will step in as interim coach.
Nets GM Billy King told reporters in a Thursday press conference that the final call to fire Johnson was made by ownership. King also stated that he felt the Nets were not playing with the "same fire" that they showed earlier in the season and that Johnson wasn't connecting with the players in his locker room.
"I just got a sense, as I told Avery this morning, that he just wasn't reaching them any more," King said. "It happens in sports, especially at the professional level."
King confirmed that Carlesimo will serve as interim coach and didn't set a firm timeline on his coaching search.
"P.J. will be the interim coach at this time," he said. "Will we look other places? We may, but at this time P.J. is our interim head coach. He'll be coaching [Friday against the Bobcats]. The remaining staff will stay with him."
The coaching change comes just days after struggling All-Star point guard Deron Williams criticized Johnson's offensive system, yearning for the good old days of the "flex" under former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
“That system was a great system for my style of play,” Williams said of the “flex” offense run by Utah Coach Jerry Sloan. “I’m a system player. I love Coach Sloan’s system. I loved the offense there.”
Williams did nothing to discourage that interpretation when he was asked to compare the offense used by the Nets with the one he ran in Utah. “Is it as good as there? No,” he said. “There’s just more one-on-one and isos” in Johnson’s offense.
Williams, of course, was seen as one of the primary reasons Sloan abruptly resigned in 2011, as player and coach reportedly had a locker-room disagreement shortly before Sloan stepped away from the game.
King defended Williams from accusations that he was responsible for Johnson's firing.
"To pinpoint this on Deron, it's not fair," King said during his press conference. "He was not the deciding [person] in this decision. In talking with ownership we felt like we didn't like the direction that we were going."
In addition to Williams' comments, other cracks were starting to show. The Nets fell to .500 after blowout losses to the Celtics at home on Christmas and to the Bucks on Wednesday in Milwaukee. Brooklyn is just 3-10 in December after an 11-4 start that earned Johnson Coach of the Month honors for October/November.
“We’re a way better team than what our record is,” Gerald Wallace said. “I’m [bleeping ticked] off about us losing, and especially the way we’re losing.”
“It’s mind-boggling that we’re in the situation we’re in,” Wallace said. “As good of a team as we are, as good as started off ... you saw the potential we had as a team, and the talent we have as a team. And yet, still, instead of team, it’s more of ‘I.’ ”
The disappointment was apparently shared in the locker room and at the executive levels. Nets CEO Brett Yormark, for example, expressed frustration on Twitter after the Christmas loss to the Celtics.
"Nets fans deserved better today," Yormark tweeted. "The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there."
The New York Daily News reported that Yormark didn't intend for his comments to be read as a shot at Johnson.
Yormark had the Nets PR department clarify that the comments were directed at the organization across the board, from in-arena issues to on-court issues. The CEO also reached out to head coach Avery Johnson to make it clear it was not a shot at him. Before Wednesday night's game in Milwaukee, Johnson said it's not a surprise.
“It's the same thing I’ve been saying all along: we all have to get better, we have to improve. It’s gonna be a dogfight all year, nothing’s going to be easy. We’ve got to take the good with the bad. Now is not the time to really analyze what’s happened for us this year, because we haven’t even gotten to the halfway point and we haven’t played a full season with this roster,” Johnson said. “But I think I agree: we all have to get better. Billy and I talk about it all the time; we’re not where we want to be, but I don’t think we are where we’re going, either. I think we still have great potential, but once we get everyone back in the fold, and figure out what’s the next step, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Indeed, the Nets' move from New Jersey to Brooklyn this season, not to mention significant capital investments in the roster, brought increased expectations. The New York Daily News reported the mood in early November.
This is his first year where we've had the right amount of talent where if we don't make the playoffs, it could be a problem," Deron Williams said. "I think [Johnson has] done a great job. We're not where we need to be. And that's not one person's blame, it's not his blame. It's everybody's blame. We're all still trying to get better. I'm sure the contract situation will work itself out. If we start winning, everything will be just fine."
"I said it at the beginning of the season we have a team on paper that should be good," Williams said. Expectations are high being in Brooklyn now. Things are at an all-time high. So if we're not winning or we're struggling it's going to be a big deal."
Prokhorov, meanwhile, told Newsday in November that he expected a deep playoff run this season and more success to come quickly after that.
"With good planets' [alignment], maybe conference finals," the Nets' owner and Russian billionaire said before Saturday night's season opener against the Raptors at Barclays Center.
He has made it clear that he expects the Nets to win an NBA title within the next three seasons, keeping the same timetable that he offered up two years ago when he first made the championship goal known.
Ownership issued only a brief statement on Thursday.
“The Nets ownership would like to express thanks to Avery for his efforts and to wish him every success in the future,” Prokhorov's statement read.
Johnson, 47, leaves the Nets with a 60-116 (.341) record in two-plus seasons. The Nets did not advance to the playoffs during his tenure. Johnson also coached the Mavericks from 2004-2008; his career coaching record stands at 254-186 (.577). Johnson also played 16 NBA seasons split among the SuperSonics, Nuggets, Spurs, Rockets, Warriors and Mavericks. He was a member of the Spurs; 1999 title team.